Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mar's Ribbon Cake

My family has a pretty inflexible Christmas routine. First, we wake up at my parents' house; we "do" Christmas there, opening presents, eating the kringle that my dad's college roommate gives us every year, taking embarrassing unkempt photos. Then we go to my dad's mother's. He is the oldest of six, and we are the oldest cousins by at least 8 years, so there are usually lots of little kids running around and being excited about Santa Claus. We eat breakfast there (again? really?) which usually consists of some sort of danish, coffee, orange juice and cake (it's Christmas, this is not a day to ask questions about food). Then we trek off to my other grandmother's house, where my brothers and I enjoy only-grandchildren status. We eat (I don't want to talk about it) lunch there, open presents, eat dessert and eventually waddle home. I never realized how much I actually liked this banal routine until it was almost taken away. My brother and his wife are in Spain this year (I don't want to talk about that either!), and we were going to go see them for Christmas. Awesome, trip to Spain, what's not to love? Yet I was unhappy, and I realized that that was because I didn't want to miss Christmas at home, especially with my grandmothers getting older. We have compromised; we're going the day after Christmas, which suits me much better...

Anyway, I digress...

I want to talk about one of the many food traditions that we have on Christmas - the mysterious presence of cake for breakfast. And before you even think coffee cake or banana cake let me assure you that there is nothing at all breakfasty about this cake. It's a cake; it's not a quick bread, it's not a muffin, it's cake. With icing. Chocolate icing. And layers - three of them. I have no idea why we serve it for breakfast, but I'm going to ask this year for sure! I do know, however, that it is my great-grandmother Mar's (pronounced Mah or /ma/ if you are IPA-inclined) recipe. [Quick aside, my great grandmother's name was Marvel; how cool is that?] This cake is a sight to behold for sure, after you cut into it anyway. Pre-cut it looks like a cake, but when you take out a slice you reveal 3 colorful layers - brown, red and green (really more like tan, pink and mint depending on how dye-happy you get) - hence "ribbon cake". Each layer has a different flavor (spice, almond and mint), but nothing is overpowering; it really just tastes like cake. I don't know why I like it that much; I guess it is because it's a tradition and, well, it's pretty. I'll snag some photos of it this year, but for now, here's the recipe:

Mar's Ribbon Cake
(I'm reproducing it exactly the way my great-grandmother had it except downsized. The original makes 3 cakes; I've cut it down to size for you guys, but you'll have to do some weighing or seriously skilled eye-balling.)

1 box of Pillsbury white cake mix
Make the batter according to the directions and then divide into 3 equal portions. Add the following ingredients to make each layer:

For the green:
1/3 t peppermint oil + green food coloring

For the red:
1/3 t almond extract + red food coloring

For the brown:
1/6 t cloves
1/6 t allspice
1/6 t cinnamon
2/3 T molasses

Now bake off each layer in an 8 or 9 inch cake pan according to the directions on the box. I think I would go 8 inch since you are dividing one cake mix into 3 pans.

Here is the chocolate icing recipe. Again, reproduced just like she had it:

3 c white sugar
1 c milk (I assume whole)
4 oz unsweet chocolate
1/4 c corn syrup
1 dash salt

5 T butter
1 t vanilla

  1. Combine the first 5 ingredients in a sauce pan on the stove.
  2. Bring to a boil and stir often until it reaches the soft ball stage (238 °F).
  3. Remove from heat.
  4. Add the butter and the vanilla.
  6. Cool for one full hour.
  7. Beat until creamy.
How curious is step number 5? Do not stir...really?

Assemble your (fully cooled) cake by stacking the layers with icing in between each layer and then ice the whole thing. I don't remember if there is any order you have to go in, and I don't think there is. I'll look into that this year as well!

I hope you've enjoyed this tiny glimpse, albeit photo-less (for now), into one of my family's strange food traditions. Please let me know if you try out the recipe!

**Edit** We didn't HAVE it this year! What?! I was really sad. So, no picture; I guess I'll have to make it sometime - maybe next Christmas!


  1. I have a different definition of IPA...